Health

The Boston Board of Health is under fire from city councilors. Here’s why.

The Boston Board of Health is under fire from city councilors.  Here's why.

Politics

“They must be called.”

Boston City Hall.

Some Boston city councilors say the city’s board of health failed to fulfill its responsibilities, especially in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and are now calling for board reform through a proposal aimed at forcing the group to meet more frequently.

Submitted by Councilor Erin Murphy on Wednesday, the petition for home ruleif approved by city officials and state lawmakers, would require the seven-member council to meet at least once a month and, at a minimum, once a week during a state of emergency.

By contrast, the council meets regularly once every two months and has met 14 times in the past two years amid the pandemic, the filing said.

According to Boston Public Health Commissionthe board met twice at the start of the crisis in March 2020, once in June, then again in July, September, October and November of the same year.

“The people who are, I guess, responsible for overseeing decisions in this area haven’t seen fit to meet more often than every two months,” Councilor Michael Flaherty said. “It was incredulous to me.”

The filing comes as Murphy and several other councilors recently reviewed city decisions, particularly those involving mask and vaccine mandates, during the COVID crisis.

Councilman Frank Baker on Wednesday alleged the council circumvented state law.

Under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 111, Section 30, boards of health can appoint directors of public health to act on their behalf “in the event of an emergency”. But the director must “in each case, within two days, report his action to the board of directors for its approval”.

The city one declaration of emergency on March 15, 2020, transferred authority to then-acting executive director Rita Nieves, but did not mention the component of state law that requires board votes in the decision making.

Baker, who recently became a vocal critic of Mayor Michelle Wu’s public health policies, said the Health Council did not vote after Wu announced the mask and proof of vaccination mandates in December.

“They made an end around the board. The board wasn’t involved, that’s what I mean,” Baker said. “…It was a decision that was made on the 20th and should have had at least action from our board if we went further in an emergency situation.”

However, Councilman Kenzie Bok noted that the Boston Board of Health operates under a separate law and therefore the city is not beholden to that section of state law requiring a vote after decisions have been made by a director. (Murphy’s Bylaws Petition actually seeks to change the law that applies to the city, a 1995 law that formed the BPHC.)

A city spokesperson, in a statement to Boston.com on Thursday, said authorities followed state law as it applies to City Hall.

“Emergency orders issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have been issued under the authority established under the Public Health Commission’s Public Health Emergency Declaration for COVID-19. Boston in the City of Boston and were within the framework of state laws governing the duties of local public health departments in the context of an infectious disease pandemic,” the spokesperson said.

Jon Latino, a spokesperson for BPHC, confirmed on Thursday that the board met eight times in 2020.

The number of board meetings is set by the board’s bylaws, which state that the group must hold six meetings a year, although members can add additional meetings at any time.

“Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board of Health has provided valuable and ongoing oversight and guidance to the Boston Public Health Commission,” Latino wrote in an email.

Still, some advisers said the Board of Health needs to deal with greater accountability.

Flaherty said he understands the board members were qualified and knowledgeable medical professionals who were busy, outside of their board work, serving Boston in a myriad of difficult ways at first. of the health crisis.

But as members of a public body, they have a certain responsibility that Flaherty thinks they have not assumed.

The general counsel said he ‘can’t even describe the frustration and anger I have’. At one point in his remarks, he recalled how a senior city health official was working remotely from Hawaii for at least part of the pandemic.

“I think they mailed it and I think they need to be called,” Flaherty said of the board.

Councilor Ricardo Arroyo and Bok both warned their colleagues to ensure the council is not politicized to the detriment of its work.

The pair have also championed the work of the board over the past two years.

“I am for responsibility. No one is above accountability or oversight, but I want to make sure we’re not politicizing the Boston Public Health Commission or the Boston Public Health Board, whose focus should be placed on the health and well-being of our communities,” Arroyo said.